Seeing the Future Synesthetic

How do we design for people who hear textures, taste shapes, and remember the color of a person rather than a name?

For $5.99, you can see differently. I should know. I spent an hour wearing an art supplier’s new 3-D glasses and playing with its chalk. But I did more than just play. I was, quite simply, training my brain for innovation. In the past three years, I have created a personal scent alphabet (most people seem to agree that “A” should smell like apple), tasted chocolate as a heartbeat, and used music to express a consumer’s emotional response to a product.

So when I had a chance to speak at the ToyCon summit in Phoenix, the annual meeting of the Toy Industry Association, I took the opportunity to talk to a VP from the art supply company. I expressed my enthusiasm for their newest products, and she nodded her head sagely (they had recently won a slew of awards for innovation). However, when I told her that I believed her company had just revolutionized learning by introducing 3-D glasses with sidewalk chalk so that the colors seem to float off the ground, she asked, “What do you mean?” “Have you heard of synesthesia?” I asked. “No,” she replied.

For those unfamiliar with synesthesia, its literal interpretation means joined senses. Those who have this innate gift might experience sound as textures, taste shapes, personify days of the week, and remember people as colors rather than by name. Originally believed to affect 1 in 200,000 people, and mostly left-handed women, the number today is closer to 1 in 20 and affects men and women equally. What still holds true is that synesthesia is genetic, often passed down in families, and that synesthetes often experience more than one type of synesthesia.

Like TEDGlobal speaker Beau Lotto (see “A New Way to See”), I don’t research synesthesia — I prefer to create it artificially. Lotto calls this “virtual synesthesia.” I call it “associational synesthesia.” While he might want to leverage synesthesia for experimenting with the brain’s adaptability, I want to cultivate and harvest it in order to design thinking processes and problem solving skills.

“You can teach people through [synesthetic] experiences to heighten their ability to find new relationships and new associations that haven’t been discovered before. That’s the creativity,” says Lotto.

You may recall Vilayanur Ramachandran’s impassioned discussion about our minds’ abilities at TED 2007. Synesthesia, as he articulated, is believed to be the basis for creativity, metaphor, and pattern recognition. Cretien van Campen, a writer and researcher, has described it as “personally developed abilities to perceive uncommon multisensory gestalts in the physical environment.”

I know as a researcher, designer, and expressive human that the medium of synesthesia, even “associationally,” is the portent of so many things possible. For Jonathan Harris, another TED alum, it is capturing the story of a whale hunt from the perspective of his heartbeat. Dr. Charles Sweeley, a former professor at Michigan State University, transformed visual urine analysis into music, so he could hear the diseases his eyes could not see. Charles Ives, one of America’s greatest composers, played with the “cracks between the piano keys” and created the micro-tones of today’s modern music. Lotto gives people the opportunity to learn the aural potential of visual patterns through synesthetic workshops. I organized my phone’s contact list to display names by color rather than alphabetically.

If we can leverage virtual synesthesia to design for our future brain, then we should be introducing these connections whenever possible. Why doesn’t our alphabet have smell associated with it? There’s no reason, actually. As humans we never forget a scent. What would we get from a scent alphabet, even if it was unique to each of us? We would get a deeper and enhanced understanding of this man-made construct. It would aid in memory, in learning, in association, and in appreciation. For the visually impaired, the letter A, which they cannot see, would now have another sensorial element for interpretation and recognition. It would be a deeper way of knowing and being intimate with an A. It would be a stimulus for the adaptive brain’s potential. As Lotto says, “It might be that my brain can’t make sense of this information yet. But when it does, it can then respond to content that has been designed for that adaptive brain.”

So, when I had the chance to talk to executives at ToyCon, I asked them to imagine seeing math in a whole new way, in which prime numbers have their own unique visual plane and the odd numbers are distinct from the even. Rather than having to rely on rote memorization, students could put on 3-D glasses and actually see different numbers in different physical spaces. It’s a simple differentiator, but it introduces the idea that what we can see (or hear, taste, or smell) may not be the whole story, and that, in fact, we may be missing an opportunity to learn better if we don’t unlock the potential of our senses.

Laura Richardson is a principal designer at frog design. She specializes in health care research and design.

The Substance of Things Not Seen

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